Elephant in the Strawberry Field
Dear Lovebirds + Friends,
I want to talk about friendship “breakups.”
The love that shapes our transitional adolescence period is friendship — complicated, dramatic, desperately important. As young children, we are limited to friendships based on proximity. Our budding interests deepen these bonds, or divide us. We get new friends. We get lovers. We get partners. We get more friends that share and strengthen our place in the world.
As we define who we are (and who we aren’t) we can shake off behaviors, objects, jobs, fashions…relationships that don’t fit us any longer. Sometimes it’s simple and natural and occasionally it’s excruciating.
It’s this painful boundary-making — growth — that attracts the new, meaningful, nurturing relationships, both romantic and platonic. Boundaries that help us outgrow childhood friendships that no longer serve our adult lives and welcome the ones that do.
This week’s Loss Letter author, Hannah Adkinson writes about that intense adolescence friendship and it's painfully divergent paths.
Dear former friend,
I think of you when I open my craft drawer and see those cute felted strawberries you gave me for my birthday a few years ago. I put the strawberries in the drawer because I don’t want to look at them, but I also don’t want to throw them away.
When we were kids, one of us had opened a fortune cookie: “True friends will share even a strawberry.” So strawberries became a shorthand for our friendship, a symbol of everything we’d shared, all the things we would share as we grew up, found our future husbands, got married, and had kids of our own. It was a given that we would stay friends forever.
Now it’s been over a year since we spoke: the longest we’ve gone without talking since we met in sixth grade.Our families don’t get together at Christmas anymore. We don’t exchange letters, or mixtapes, or first-of-the-month “rabbit rabbit rabbit” texts. It’s been over a year since you last reached out to me, emailing to say that you wished me well, that you were pregnant and wanted me to know, that you forgave me for not attending your wedding. The coral bridesmaid’s dress is still hanging in the back of my closet, the tags still on it. I don’t want to throw it away, but I don't want to look at it.
“I don’t want to throw it away, but I don’t want to look at it.”
You had a simple question with a simple answer. “Will you be one of my bridesmaids?” Of course! I was thrilled for you and Ben. I was excited to be included.
Then I had a simple question for you. “Can I bring my girlfriend?”
I don’t know why it took me a few weeks to ask you this. I guess I knew it would be a point of contention. You’d been less than enthusiastic when I’d told you about the relationship over the phone earlier that year, and I knew you still had reservations about me dating women. Still, I had hope that the answer would be a simple yes.
Your answer started with a yes, but it wasn’t simple.
“Yes, of course, I’d love to meet her, and you’re welcome to bring her, but—” and here your voice wavered on the phone, you took a deep breath—“I feel like it’s only fair that I remind you of my beliefs. I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Just that. Just a slap in the face.
Oh, and also that Ben’s family is very conservative, very traditional, and in light of the recent supreme court ruling for marriage equality, I shouldn’t be surprised if they refer to that in their speeches, that I shouldn’t be offended if they talk about defending traditional marriage. If they toast this straight marriage as a victory in the culture wars.
But of course, my girlfriend would be welcome to attend.
I was a little stunned, my heart pounding.
I asked, “So… will people be uncomfortable if Anne and I dance together?”
“Oh gosh no! A bunch of my single girlfriends will be there, and I know they’ll all be on the dance floor all night, dancing with each other. No one will think that’s weird.”
“I don’t think you understand,” I said. “If I bring Anne, I’m going to bring her as my girlfriend, as a couple. We will look… gay. Will these people freak out if we’re holding hands, if I kiss her on the cheek?”
“Well, honestly, I wouldn’t expect anyone, including my straight friends, to be doing a lot of PDA. It’s a religious ceremony, and I would expect all our friends to keep in mind the moral tone of the event and behave accordingly.”
I don’t know why it came as such a shock to me, this roundabout rejection. My sexuality had been the elephant in our strawberry field for several years at this point. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Somehow I hadn’t seen it before, that you weren’t capable of being the friend I needed. I’d never seen so clearly how your religion divided us.
“Of course, I would hate for her to feel uncomfortable. I’d completely understand if you wanted to come alone, and then, you know, I could meet her some other time. Ben and I would love to come out to Brooklyn to meet Anne and hang out, just the four of us.”
The thing I can’t get over is that you thought you were being kind.
You and I were both raised Catholic in the suburbs of Houston. It was one of the things we had in common, early on. We attended Mass with each other’s families on Sunday mornings after sleepovers.
After junior high, you went to a Catholic high school, while I went to the public school. You were one of the first people I came out to in high school. We were sixteen, and I had known for three years. I was spending the night at your house, and I said I had something to tell you. I was so nervous—you were so religious—but you hugged me, reassuring me that this changed nothing, and that you loved me no matter what. You thanked me for trusting you.
You became an ally as I struggled with being closeted at school, coming out to my parents. You’d stop by the ice cream shop where I worked and listen to my latest worries, the girls I was crushing on, my fights with my mom. In between spoonfuls of raspberry sundae, you reminded me that high school wasn’t forever. You had another gay friend, a boy from your theater class at the Catholic school, who was going to a support group for LGBT teens on the other side of town. One night, we crafted an elaborate cover story for our parents, who wouldn’t have approved, so I could go with him and talk to other gay teens. It meant the world to me. You were on my side, and I was so grateful.
Things changed after high school, when we both went away to college. You went to a Catholic university in Dallas, while I went to a liberal arts college near Austin. We stayed friends though I left the Church and your faith grew deeper, though I was an out lesbian and a budding feminist and you were a devout Catholic and deeply pro-life.
“You became an ally as I struggled...”
We stayed friends though you took me out for coffee one winter break and told me you could no longer support my decision to date women. You cried. You told me that you wanted to see me in heaven, that you hoped I would come back to the church, that you’d been praying for me. You gave me a prayer journal you’d been keeping: letters you’d written to me on retreats, accounts of rosaries and Novenas you’d prayed for me, entreaties to Christ that I might see His face and know His love again. You said you understood that it was a lot to take in, that you hoped we could stay friends. I went home and stuck the journal in a drawer. I pushed away the hurt and confusion. I told myself it came from a place of love. We never spoke of it again. And somehow, we stayed friends.
You explained, instead of apologizing, that planning a wedding is a lot of pressure. That it’s so easy to get caught up in the details, and that you were just trying your best to make everyone happy, to bring together all these different worlds and just celebrate love.
It took a couple of weeks of soul-searching and talking with my girlfriend, my sisters, my friends, my therapist. How can I go to the wedding now? How can I not go?
In the end, I decided I couldn’t show up in celebration of your love when you wouldn’t be willing to do the same for me. And that was that, I didn’t go, I never wore that coral dress. You said you forgave me for not coming to your wedding. You said you’d be ready to talk when I am. It’s been over a year and I haven’t been ready. I don’t know if I ever will be.
It’s been almost 20 years since I turned to you in sixth grade social studies and asked if I could use some of your craft supplies for the 3D map-making project. It was just like me to forget to bring my own supplies from home. It was just like you to show up with two shopping bags overflowing with odds and ends from your mom’s craft room. You had this crinkly iridescent cellophane that I thought would be perfect for the oceans on my map, and you were so generous. Take as much as you want, you said, handing me fistfuls of rainbows. I’ve got plenty.
That was the moment we always pointed to, later, as the start of our friendship, the first strawberry you shared with me. You shared what you had with me as long as you could, and when you ran out of love to give to me, to my whole self, that was when the friendship ended.
“I couldn’t show up in celebration of your love when you wouldn’t be willing to do the same for me.”
Today, I’m joyfully married to the woman of my dreams, that same girlfriend you didn’t want me to be affectionate with at your wedding. My sisters support me unconditionally and embrace me for who I am. My parents love and accept my wife as a member of the family. I’ve surrounded myself with a strong community of loving friends; many of them are queer, and the straight ones are unequivocally supportive and enthusiastic about the love I’ve found. That’s the kind of friendship I want to keep in my life. That’s the kind of friendship I’ve learned I deserve. I no longer have to accept crumbs of barely-there tolerance disguised as kindness or concern.
That said, I think of you almost every day. While sitting in this coffee shop writing this letter, I’ve heard at least five songs that remind me of you, songs we belted out as teenagers on the highway in your mom’s van. We loved driving with no destination, windows down to let in a taste of freedom, the future we knew lay beyond our hometown. Our relationship was one of the defining features of my adolescence, a deep bond complete with an origin story, an officially designated friendship holiday, secret nicknames and codes and rituals, an entire codified history. It hurts me to have consciously cut you out of my life, and yet I feel like I made the right choice.
I miss you, my friend. I’m still grieving this loss. There’s no easy takeaway.
With love and with sorrow,
As you now know, Hannah Adkinson is an incredible talent,living and writing in Brooklyn. She is currently working on her first novel and can be found here.
Hannah’s bright light drew me in like a moth. I met Hannah just days after her move from Texas. Without her friendship, encouragement and sense of abundance I would not have launched Loss Letters. Thank you, Hannah, for your friendship and the beautiful creative work you put into the world. Happy Valentine’s Day to all my friends (best of all my exceptional wife).